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AleSmith Opens Its Heart to the Lost Boys of Sudan

San Diego’s iconic brewery offers its support in real, hands-on ways


AleSmith co-owners Vicky and Peter Zien (right) maintain close ties with some of the Lost Boys of Sudan. With them here are (from left) Mary Ukang, Daniel Ukang, and AleSmith team member Isaac Amol. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

The craft beer community is, in general, very kind and generous. Most breweries I know participate in—or donate to—numerous charitable causes every year, and many brewers and staffers feel passionate about the issues that most affect our world. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that great beer can be a force for considerable good; it brings people out, and that’s always useful for fundraising and raising awareness.

I’ve known for a while that AleSmith had a special connection to a group of the Lost Boys of Sudan—boys and young men who fled their homes when their villages were attacked during the Second Sudanese Civil War. All in all, more than 20,000 boys (most only six or seven years old) and young men were uprooted, and more than 2 million people were killed in that brutal conflict, which lasted from 1987 to 2005. In 2000, about 3,300 boys were brought to the United States. About 100 settled in San Diego.

Vicky Zien, co-owner and chief operating officer of AleSmith, first became aware of the Lost Boys’ story through her church, which supported resettlement efforts in San Diego. “It was about three years ago, when I saw an ad in our bulletin asking for help from employers who needed to hire,” she recalls. “I was already hiring temps from two different agencies at the time, but I thought I’d much rather hire some of the Lost Boys of Sudan.” Even though she knew relatively little about them, what she learned through the bulletin and subsequent research convinced her even more that she wanted to help. She reached out to the folks who were coordinating the job placements and was promptly referred her first candidate, Alephonsion Deng. “I interviewed him, I hired him, and he referred several others,” she says. To date, AleSmith has hired a total of eight Lost Boys.

Vicky and her husband, Peter Zien (co-owner and CEO), are quick to point out that even though AleSmith was helping these Lost Boys by bringing them on, the Lost Boys have also made a unique contribution to AleSmith. “They’ve definitely brought a whole new level of humility to our team,” Vicky says. “And they’re just so grateful for any act of kindness that you show them. They’re grateful for their jobs, they’re grateful for benefits and the perks that we offer, and they’re grateful to come to a place where we welcome them. It has made everyone else more appreciative of everything that we sometimes take for granted in life.” Peter also sees the overwhelmingly positive effects of having them on staff, noting that morale at the brewery improved “almost overnight.” “We pride ourselves on our culture here at AleSmith,” he says, “and the addition of the Lost Boys of Sudan as team members has been a great thing. They brought not only a great work ethic, but confidence and 24-carat smiles, even though they’ve been through so much hardship. It’s been a real message to the rest of us that we have it pretty good. We have a lot of respect for what they’ve been through.”

The July 18 fundraiser kickoff was held during AleSmith's IPA Week and featured an extra-wide variety of IPAs on tap. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Over the past few years, AleSmith has participated in a number of events designed to help the Lost Boys. Their most recent fundraiser started on July 18 and runs through the end of August; they hope to raise $10,000 for the California Sudanese Lost Boys & Girls Foundation, which is supported primarily by AleSmith and St. Michael’s Church in Rancho Bernardo. The money they raise goes to buy desks, chairs, books, food, and school supplies for the Awoda school in Sudan.

“Daniel Ukang went back to Sudan for a month this summer; he showed us pictures of children in school sitting on dirt floors, using the dirt to write their lessons,” Vicky says. After looking through those photographs, and finding out that none of Awoda’s students could get more than a fourth-grade education, Vicky and Peter started to talk about what they could do to change that. “Peter and I have been wanting to use AleSmith as a vehicle to help us do more for the community, so we talked about doing this fundraiser to send money to Sudan.” In addition to hosting the event, they also asked people to sponsor a child or fund school supplies.

Ukang works with AleSmith and St. Michael’s to coordinate fundraising; he also works to place fellow Sudanese refugees in jobs around San Diego. “It’s one of the hardest things that we do, struggling to find the guys jobs,” he says. “When AleSmith offered to hire some of them, it was just great.” AleSmith is not the only local business that’s hired multiple Lost Boys. Barona Resort & Casino, where Ukang works, has hired 22 of them, and Sycuan employs a number of them as well. Ukang says many of the Sudanese folks who come to America face difficult challenges making connections and acclimating to life in a new country; he’s taken it upon himself to ease those transitions and put his comrades together with businesses and individuals who are willing to help. Of the 100 Lost Boys who originally came to San Diego, Ukang says about 35 of them graduated from college and have now returned to Sudan to help others.

It’s obvious to anyone who sees Vicky and Peter Zien with the Lost Boys that what began as a charitable endeavor has blossomed into a passionate mission that is deeply personal and meaningful for both of them. Not only are they effecting change, they’re able to see firsthand the fruits of their efforts. “We really love this cause,” Peter says. “We spend time with them, with their families; we watch their children grow. And we watch them become important members of society here in San Diego.”

Learn more about the California Sudanese Lost Boys & Girls Foundation.

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